Couleurs Cezanne at les Baux de Provence by Gianfranco IannuzziIf you have visited the South of France, the chances are that you have seen one of Gianfranco Iannuzzi's unique and poetic son et lumière installations in some of Provence's loveliest settings. logoClick here to book a hotel in Provence

For nearly three decades, the Venice-born Signor Iannuzzi has been the creative force behind the Cathedral of Images (now renamed the Quarries of Lights, or Carrières de Lumières) in the huge and starkly dramatic bauxite quarries at Les Baux de Provence.

Of ever-increasing complexity, these shows change yearly and explore a wide range of themes. Often (though not always) they are art-based: one year Bosch and Bruegel, at other times the Sistine Chapel, the French fantasy illustrator Philippe Druillet or the cities of Alexandria and Venice.

The spectacle at Les Baux de Provence – the current one lasts around 40 minutes – gives you a full SenseSurround experience. It covers the high ceilinged, 4000 square metre / 43000 square foot space with a kaleidoscope of colour and puts the viewer right at the centre of the art.

By now the Quarries of Lights have become one of the most popular tourist attractions in Provence. So much so that in 2018 they inspired a sister-attraction in Paris based on a similar "total immersion" concept, L'Atelier des Lumières.

Gianfranco IannuzziElsewhere in Provence, Iannuzzi, pictured, has previously designed installations at Paul Cézanne's family home, the Jas de Bouffan, and at the artist's studio in Les Lauves, on the Place d'Albertas in Aix, at the Palais des Papes in Avignon and (in Languedoc-Roussillon) at the Musée Lapidaire in Narbonne.

And in 2015 he drew on his Venetian roots for a multi-media show to accompany an exhibition of Canaletto's work at Aix's Caumont Centre d'Art.

Internationally, he has worked everywhere from Vancouver to Beirut to Tokyo. Speaking in French from his office in Paris, Iannuzzi revealed some of the secrets of his art.

He started out taking photographs as a hobby. "I taught sociology for 20 years,” he says. "But I've been passionate about images ever since my teens. And finally I decided to change my life and turn my passion into my profession."

At first he was content with exhibiting his shots. But, he says, "It always seemed a bit limiting just to print images and hang them up. I wanted to make them burst out of the frame."

Iannuzzi began experimenting with deconstructing and reconstructing photographs, and projecting them on a wall. Then in the 1980s he started building "very personal" installations in his hometown.

"One of them, called Kaleidocromia, was created with Venetian friends, a painter and a composer. It was a performance with percussion music inside a theatre which I'd completely emptied of seats and dressed in my own way.

"In the piazza outside (pictured below), I projected images, even on the church bell-tower which was a sort of lighthouse or landmark that you could see from all over Venice.

Kaleidocromia in Venice by Gianfranco Iannuzzi"People were attracted by it, discovered the piazza with the images and then went into the theatre."

Iannuzzi's involvement with the Quarries of Lights began by chance in the late 1980s when he was driving from Venice to Arles to attend a workshop at the city's famous Rencontres photography festival.

Taking a detour to Les Baux de Provence, he noticed the entrance to a quarry, pictured below, on the road to the hilltop village and on an impulse went in. Inside the cavernous interior he discovered what was then known as the Cathedral of Images, an installation originally set up in 1975 by a French journalist and photographer, Albert Plécy. And "something clicked" with him.

Entrance to the Quarries of Lights, Les Baux de ProvenceBack then the simple show relied on a slide carousel. Even then the results were astounding. And Iannuzzi had all sorts of other ideas. He proposed a more ambitious concept - "something in between theatre and projection" - that would combine light, sound and performance (actors were originally involved, though this eventually proved to be impractical).

Today, following a two million €uro investment in new technology, the show at Les Baux has become highly sophisticated.

The sound system has been updated and around 100 projectors with fibre optic cables cover every square inch in the main chamber, even the floor, with a dense carpet of images. 3000 of them flash past in the course of a performance, sometimes as many as 50 at once.

Iannuzzi's installations in Aix en Provence have been very different. In 2002, he was invited to devise an unusual spectacle in the gardens of Cézanne's studio at Les Lauves. Ianuzzi's description of it hints at his incredible imagination.

La Nuit des Toiles in Aix en Provence by Gianfranco Iannuzzi"It was called La Nuit des Toiles, a pun on toiles (artists' canvasses) and étoiles (stars), and was in place from 2002-2007. As night fell in the summer, people could go for a walk in the gardens and discover paintings by Cézanne, revisited and reworked by me.

"For one of them we built a little pool and I projected Les Baigneuses (The Bathers) behind it on a screen, pictured. People could see the painting reflected in the pool and hear the sound of the water – real water, not a recording.

"We wove a spider's web among the trees and projected images onto it, and we had tiny video screens showing flowers painted by Cézanne emerging from the earth and bursting into bloom.

"Elsewhere we projected paintings onto big pieces of cloth. On some evenings the weather was calm and the images were very sharp. At other times the Mistral was blowing, the cloth flapped in the wind and the images fragmented in all directions."

Invisible Bridges in Avighnon by Gianfranco IannuzziIannuzzi loved the unpredictability of the open-air location - even though it can often mean that his work requires constant attention.

"Technology can give you nasty surprises if it's not well maintained! In general I prefer not to go back to my installations later because, if they're not working properly, I'm disappointed and get angry."

In 2010-2011, Iannuzzi created a show, Invisible Bridges, at Avignon's Palais des Papes, pictured. It was intended to "overcome the barriers between people and build bridges over ignorance and misunderstanding."

The 2012 Van Gogh and Gauguin show at the Quarries of LightsThe Les Baux quarries were closed for a year in 2011 due to a legal dispute. But, ever since they reopened, the site has been a roaring success, Iannuzzi says. "In fact, the technicians have told me it gets sometimes so crowded that it's hard to run the show.

"If you have over 1000 visitors a day, you might get 300-400 people there at the same time at peak periods and that's difficult to manage even if the room is very large.

"You can't hear the music nearly as well - there's always background noise because this is not intended to be like an opera where everyone listens in silence. People talk to each other, children play.

"It's normal and I love that. But when you have a lot of visitors at once, it can be slightly annoying." Pictured above: Giants of the Renaissance, the 2015 spectacle at Les Baux.

When developing a new show, Iannuzzi works with his regular collaborators, Renato Gatto, who selects the music, and the video artist Massimilliano Siccardi. They begin by researching the topic and fashioning it into a narrative. "It's like writing a film script," he says. Music has to be found, and the rights to it and the visual material organised.

"Some people creating son et lumière shows use music or a play as their starting point and add the images afterwards. For me the image and the space I'm going to inhabit are the starting point and all the rest comes later. What interests me most is the dialogue between them.

Installation at the Jas de Bouffan by Gianfranco Iannuzzi"The image in itself, hanging on the wall, interests me less. Whereas it's totally different if it's projected in the garden of Cézanne's house, at night, in the middle of trees, with the wind blowing, or if it's in a quarry, or a disused factory, or a church, or a square."

Pictured top left: Couleurs Cézanne, the show at Les Baux de Provence in 2006. Pictured above left: Iannuzzi's Cézanne installation at the Jas de Bouffan.

"Each time, the image is transfigured by the place," Iannuzzi continues. "And the image transfigures the place in its turn. Spaces become momentarily unrecognisable when they're invaded. An ephemeral exchange happens, a sort of alchemy or magic.

"To all that you have to add the point of view of the spectator who adds something extra and reads the images as he moves through the space, each person in his own different way. And at the same time he is himself integral to the spectacle, because his own silhouette becomes part of it.

"I'm not interested in seeing my show projected in an empty space. For me, it's only completed when the space is inhabited and I see moving in front of my images the silhouette of someone who crosses, stops, watches.

"We often consume art in a passive way - television especially, but also dance, theatre and music. I love tearing people out of their armchairs.

"After I did a show on Picasso, I got a lot of mail. Many people didn't like Picasso before but afterwards they saw him in a different light. Children especially love being able to touch the images. Sometimes couples dance to the music." Pictured: an image from Iannuzzi's Picasso show at Les Baux de Provence in 2009.

Gianfranco Iannuzzi's Picasso show at Les Baux de Provence, 2009"The point is not just to exhibit the paintings. You can see those in a museum as they were created by the artist and we mustn't replace that. I aim to deconstruct the works and reconstruct them in another form."

Iannuzzi now has more commissions than he can cope with. Each show in Les Baux takes him and his team the best part of a year to prepare. The "main feature" is always accompanied by a five minute short film with a more general theme, though in recent years this has been produced by other contributors.

"I can't do more than one or two spectacles a year in the way I work," he says. "I've chosen not to be a production house but an artist who creates his own pieces from beginning to end."

Does Iannuzzi yearn to put on another display in his own hometown, surely the most fabulous setting imaginable?

"I have a rather special relationship with Venice. I love to go there but, since I left the city, I haven't had the opportunity or perhaps the desire to work there.

"On the other hand I've bought Venice to Provence with two shows in the quarries in Les Baux. For the one I staged in 2007, I took a lot of the photos.

Venice in Les Baux de Provence by Gianfranco Iannuzzi"I know the city very well after all, and there was no-one who could go and get the images I wanted." Pictured: one of Iannuzzi's images of his hometown from that 2007 show.

"It was a pleasure to take my camera and walk around with it, but I couldn't say I still do much photography. I'm less interested in photography as an artform. Perhaps I don't really have the time either." One thing seems certain: he has no regrets for his former life as a sociology professor. Iannuzzi laughs heartily at the suggestion. "Yes, you could say that."

Visit Gianfranco Iannuzzi's official website

All images ©Gianfranco Iannuzzi except the entrance to The Quarries of Lights ©Culturespaces



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